Americans were glued to their television sets last Wednesday as they watched pro-Trump protesters storm the U.S. Capitol—drawing quick rebukes from most, but not all, politicians. The demonstrators’ goals don’t seem entirely clear other than they were and are upset with the election results and wanted to interrupt congressional proceedings.

During the process, violence erupted, police were overwhelmed, and for a short time, the protesters seized and defiled part of the Capitol building—a sacrosanct structure representing the promise and hope of America. Eventually, they were cleared from the complex, and in the aftermath, at least five people laid dead, dozens were arrested and at least 14 law enforcement officers suffered injuries.

This is one instance of a long string of unrest. Riots and demonstrations marred 2020 and caused over $1 billion in damage. In fairness, the impetus for these protests was far different than the Capitol Hill breach and were certainly led by individuals of a different political persuasion. Whatever the case, violence is almost never the right answer, but it has regrettably spilled over into 2021.

While the 2020 protests were far more physically destructive, the December 6 siege of Capitol Hill was more symbolically destructive. The Capitol is supposed to be a place for peaceful deliberation and a beacon of liberty, but it became the setting for chaos. Sadly, there is an ancient episode that is eerily reminiscent of the recent breach that I covered in my first book Gaius Marius: The Rise and Fall of Rome’s Saviour. Unfortunately, it portends a potentially uneasy future.

According to numerous ancient authors, sometime in 100 BC, while Rome’s celebrated politician and general Gaius Marius was serving in his sixth term as consul (Rome’s top regularly elected post), a domestic dispute erupted. Marius had politically allied himself with some unscrupulous men—Lucius Appuleius Saturninus and Gaius Servilius Glaucia—who had lofty political ambitions of their own.

Glaucia resolved to seek the office of the consulship for the following year. Yet it quickly became clear that he couldn’t defeat his opposition—named Memmius—in the ballot box. So, Saturninus ordered his goons to brutally club Memmius to death, and they were happy to oblige.

This murder understandably angered the Roman populace, and they demanded justice. But Glaucia and his friend Saturninus weren’t prepared to cede their power—let alone face criminal charges. So, they and their supporters marched on the Capitol and the Forum, which was the civic and religious heart of Rome, and seized it.

This was bad enough, but Marius and his consular colleague deferred action against these rebels. In fact, Marius initially sought to ingratiate himself with the seditious rabble and their opposition—an outrageous act. When it became clear that decisive action was imperative, the Senate ordered Marius to lead troops against the rebels. After his initial delay, he dutifully complied, and forced them to withdraw from the Roman Forum whereupon they took a fortified position in the Capitol.

Marius had an answer for this, and he severed their water lines—ultimately forcing them to surrender. He subsequently held the ringleaders in the Senate house for their coming trial, but the opposition climbed atop the building and hurled roof tiles at the malefactors until they died from the blows.

It was an ignominious end to the conflict, and it ultimately tainted Marius’ legacy because he allied with people of disrepute and failed to act with urgency. However, this episode didn’t represent the beginning or the end of Roman civic unrest. In fact, it was one link in a long chain of violent events that eventually occurred with increasing regularity and ferocity. In time, violence often became the answer to political disputes rather than the constitution and rule of law.

While the Saturninus riots and the U.S. Capitol breach are far from perfect parallels, Roman history offers many lessons for us. After all, it’s easy to see some broad similarities between the Saturninus’ sedition the U.S. Capitol Hill assault. An electoral issue—in part—prompted the Saturninus/Glaucia debacle whereby they seized the Capitol and were only dispersed after a delayed reaction from Marius.

In Rome’s case, violence increasingly beget more violence and a blatant disregard for their constitution. That was Rome’s path and partially why the Republic crumbled, but simply because Rome and the United States share many similarities doesn’t mean we share the same fate.

The truth is that I can’t predict the outcome for America, but what happens next is up to us. Yet if Americans as a whole embrace peace and an adherence to the Constitution and just laws, then we can succeed where the Roman Republic failed.

Featured Publications